So a couple of posts ago I mentioned the expat bubble and got asked for examples of this phenomenon. It’s a good question, and made me think.

Broadly, I’d say, the expat bubble is a mindset and way of life. It is living in expat dominated areas (in Hong Kong, mid-levels and the ‘South Side’, though as rents have increased, this is expanding to the west of Hong Kong Island, enclaves such as Austin in Kowloon which seems to be the only area people can come up with when asked about living in Kowloon, and Sai Kung/Clear Water Bay), having only expat friends, making no attempt to learn the basics of the local language, and being ignorant of local affairs.

In fact, it is the last one that really gets my goat. Where you live is a function of money and who wouldn’t live in the poshest area if they could? So fine. This is one area in which I’m actually glad I can’t afford mid-level rents ( or when we could afford it, we never considered it a judicious use of funds) because our very first experience of Hong Kong was very local and that set the tone for the rest of our stay. We learnt to love it – both the low rents that come from not living around expats and the immersion in the local culture, even though it came with difficulties like lack of English.

Having only expat friends is again, forgivable, maybe because it is really hard to break into Chinese circles, if nothing else because of language. However, recently, I’ve noticed that Westerners are also very cliquish, despite their veneer of friendliness. Anyhoo. And then the language is hard to learn. But you’d think a person who’s been here 10 years could say the odd thing. Even I admit to the frustration of having to jump through hoops because of language coupled with the general truculence of service staff here, but that does not deter me from venturing out of my comfort zone at last 50% of the time (in our case, much more because of where we live).

As I said, it’s the last category that gets to me. People who don’t have a clue of what’s going on, which is of course influenced by where they live, who their friends are, and language (though there are now enough English sources of news, apart from the fact of actually keeping your eyes open and exploring your own city). Examples of expat bubble conversations:

  1. People who are unaware that every television set connects to the free TV channels. (“Oh what is TVB?”)
  2. People who have no clue about local news. SCMP used to be expensive (though only knowing about SCMP as a source of news is a symptom of expat-bubbleness), but The Standard went free a couple of years ago and there was always the 7.30 pm news (if these people could figure out how to work their TV set) and now there are loads of free news sites.
    Example of expat bubble conversation: “Who is Joshua Wong?” Answer: The student leader of the Occupy protests.
    Example 2 of expat bubble conversation: “Oh those students, such a nuisance, the traffic in Admiralty was so crowded.” Hint: Take the train.
    Example 3 of expat bubble conversation: “Oh yeahhh. But isn’t it so crowded?”.
    Example 4 (tangentially related to the above): “Why is there a traffic jam in Central today?” Answer: Because China No.3 honcho, the man directly responsible for Hong Kong, was in town. The news was only full of it for one whole week.

So yeah, the above two are related to news/politics and maybe I’m unduly interested, but the thing is the whole of Hong Kong has become dramatically politicized since October last year, a process that been gradually happening over the years. To be clueless at this time is just odd.

3. Then, there’s the tendency to hold everything up to Western standards.

Example: Woman venting about how some supermarket clerk shushed her baby and then when she glared the other clerks laughed. Fine, be angry. Then she goes: “In the UK, blah blah blah.” The thing is, so what if in the UK. This is not the UK. Get over it.

4. Then, there’s the tendency to only shop in uber-expensive expat enclaves and assume that everyone else does.

Example: Woman asking “where do you buy your detergent?” Apparently, she’s been importing hers from the UK, until she ran out and realised the cost of Waitrose products here. Thing is, she has never ever stepped into Park N Shop I think. At the most, Taste (which is like the higher-end version of Park N Shop). I remember these women dithering over where to buy water because they had forgotten their child’s bottle of (presumably double distilled) aqua and did not trust the brands in the local supermarket. Then they go, “everything is so expensive.”

But, if anyone asks for a suggestion for a restaurant, it will always be some overpriced, posh place in Central or thereabouts or in the five-star hotel. The number of times the Peninsula gets mentioned for a place for tea (admittedly it does have the most famous high tea in town) is astounding. It’s especially hilarious when people ask for “affordable” suggestions.

Again, expat bubble is connected to money. You can only live in a bubble if you are insulated by money. But what makes expat bubble dwellers more annoying than the local elite is the ignorance part. Actually, a lot of wealthy Hong Kong people patronize extremely humble food spots, like dai pai dongs, which explains why we had the Fishball Revolution during Chinese New Year. Expats, however, will be going: “What’s a fishball?”


So after a bit of discussion in the comments and some reflection, I need to add two caveats:

  1. I think people who have recently moved get a pass. They need time to get their bearings and understand the new culture. A place like Hong Kong is deceptive because it’s quite easy to settle in and feel like you’re participating in the society, when you’re just scratching the surface.
  2. Not everyone moves to another place excited by the possibility of being immersed in a new culture. For some people, it’s just a job. For others, they’ve moved so many times they cannot be bothered to do the whole exploration shtick again. To be fair, this is only the second time I’ve moved cities. For the abovementioned people, maybe what they really want is just to surround themselves with the familiar so they can get on with the business of living. Fair enough. I find this boring and the kind of conversations that happen within this kind of lifestyle strange. It’s a question of my own preference, and if it is a value judgement, it’s a personal one, based on preferences.